Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
One early evening last August, on the day the California
Supreme Court declared 4,000 San Francisco–made marriages invalid, more than
200 people gathered on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood to defend the
right of same-sex couples to wed. Women stood side-by-side, arms around each
other’s waists, holding marriage licenses blown up to poster-sized placards.
Clean-cut men with spectacular dogs held signs saying “Annul This!”
under what our president would call a “one-fingered salute” and “Our
Love Is Not Invalid.” State Senator Sheila Kuehl got up to speak at the
emergency event, as did other familiar politicians and clergy from local gay
and lesbian congregations.
But the night’s most arresting speech was given by a 44-year-old
gay Latino man known well within West Hollywood but hardly recognized beyond:
John Duran, a first-term West Hollywood City Council member and the city’s current
mayor (as in a lot of small cities, West Hollywood’s council members take turns
at the job), spoke eloquently about equality and liberty, freedom of religion
and “freedom from religion.”
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Dark-eyed, with coffee-colored skin and both the short, gelled
hair and fitted shirts of his gym-and-fashion-centric culture, Duran invited
New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who had just that day confessed his sexual
orientation in the glare of a sexual-harassment scandal, to come and get hitched
in West Hollywood. (Although, unlike San Francisco County, the city of West
Hollywood can’t issue marriage licenses to anybody, straight or gay.) He assured
the assembled couples that their urge to marry was proof of their good citizenship.
Most persuasively, he aligned himself with the goals of the founders and framers:
He defended gay marriage in the name of James Madison.
A few months later, Duran delivered another version of his speech
to a large crowd at a fund-raiser for Senator John Kerry held at the El Rey
Theater. “I saw a man at an anti-abortion rally carrying a sign,”
Duran told the audience. “It said, ‘THESE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO HELL: Homosexuals.
Lesbians’ — as if lesbians aren’t homosexuals — ‘Abortionists. And Democrats.’
So, welcome to hell!”
A few minutes in, Duran returned to his core message: “What
would Hamilton and Jefferson have to say,” he wondered to the crowd, “about
the Patriot Act? About the prisoners languishing at Guantánamo Bay?”
He invoked Lincoln on national unity, Teddy Roosevelt on the environment and
Lyndon Johnson on poverty. He cited the First, Fourth and 14th amendments in
his case against the Bush administration. It made for a simple message, but
a remarkably powerful one: “As a lover of the Constitution,” Duran
concluded, “it is my duty to remove [Bush] from office.”
Duran’s speech was a variation on a theme he’s been pursuing since
his early days as a civil-rights attorney in Santa Ana: Reclaim the Constitution,
take back the Bill of Rights and compare the ideals of Madison and Jefferson
to the modern-day practice of morality. He has a knack for speech-making, honed
by decades of experience as a conspicuous activist lawyer in Orange County,
polished by years of deferred political ambitions. Says his colleague on the
City Council, Jeffrey Prang, “John has the appeal of an old Southern Baptist
A preacher who knows his Constitution: “The Bill of Rights
is a durable document,” Duran says. “Though I usually skip the Second
Amendment, because I don’t want to get into the gun-control debate. And the
Third, the one about quartering the military in private houses — that’s a little
too weird. Although,” he pauses to think, “I guess it could happen.
These days, you never know.”
Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
In Duran’s City Hall office, behind his desk, sits a brightly
painted orange-and-yellow sculpture made of three long strips of wood — two
of them stretch toward the sky, the other plunges toward the ground.
“It’s the serpent before the fall of Eden pleading to God
to please not condemn him to a life of crawling on his belly,” Duran says.
“He loses, of course.”
There’s a metaphor in there for Duran, a self-described “angry
activist” who has spent the last 20 years fighting for the rights of gays
and lesbians in both Orange County and West Hollywood. Slogging through the
political culture of late-’80s Orange County in search of justice for people
who had lost their jobs because of their HIV status must have felt a little
like pleading to God for dignity. And waking up on this past November 3 to hear
that voters in 11 states rushed to the polls the day before to ban gay marriage
in their state constitutions must have felt like hearing that plea denied.
“I was surprised,” Duran admits, looking uncharacteristically
glum. “People voted against their own pocketbooks. They ignored record
job losses, disregarded their family finances, all to stop gay marriage. It’s
But Duran is not one to brood. He has already begun formulating
a message to take back the country on its own terms. “We absolutely have
to engage them on the issue of values,” he says, “on the Bible and
on the Constitution. All the values the left stands for are biblically based,
but we’ve ceded the territory to the religious right because we’re uncomfortable
with a religious agenda. We can’t be afraid of it anymore; we’ve got to take
Duran is on a roll now; his cadence verging on speechifying. “It’s
possible to maintain a wall between church and state and still promote spiritual
values,” he insists. “And that’s everything we’re about: protecting
the elderly with strong social security, health insurance to care for the sick,
looking after the homeless — the people Jesus meant when he said ‘the least
of my brothers.’
“I’m not giving the right wing the Bill of Rights or principles
of justice,” Duran declares, his voice rising. “Their agenda has nothing
to do with patriotism or Christianity. But I understand why they use values,
and God. Because how do you advance a corporate-military agenda unless you promise
to save people’s souls?”
John Duran grew up in a family of old-fashioned liberal
Catholics in Lincoln Heights on Los Angeles’ Eastside and Santa Fe Springs near
Whittier and Norwalk. (He became an Episcopalian, he says, “because I couldn’t
really stand by the pope.”) His father worked for Pacific Bell; his mother,
Gloria, a United Farm Workers activist in the days of Cesar Chavez, still serves
on the board of the Los Nietos School District, which includes schools in Whittier
and Santa Fe Springs and, founded in 1861, is California’s second oldest school
district. Despite the influence of his relatively radical mother, Duran grew
up apolitical and didn’t come out early.
“Like a lot of young gay boys, I couldn’t even throw a ball
right,” he says, “and the things I was naturally drawn to, like music
and singing, made me a target for ridicule, so I stayed away from them.”
(He now sings in the Gay Men’s Chorus.) In high school, he struggled to adapt
to the customs of his peers by dating girls — he imagined that it was L.A.’s
licentious culture, not his own nature, that was fueling his attraction to men.
At 18, he fled. “I picked Orange County,” he says, “because it
was so straight.”
At least that was the plan. Duran’s first job out of high school
was shooting hippos as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. “I
thought it would be brilliant to work in an environment like Disneyland,”
he said. “I thought that I could go there and avoid the homosexual influence
altogether.” Behind the scenes at the Happiest Place on Earth, however,
was the gayest place in California outside of San Francisco, a veritable “hotbed
of gay society,” as Duran puts it. Within six months, says Duran, “I
was dating Peter Pan.”
It was the late ’70s in Jimmy Carter’s lust-in-your-heart America,
a time of relative social tolerance, Donna Summer discomania and cheap drugs.
The nation was at peace, or presumed to be, anyway; no one had heard of AIDS.
“It was,” says Duran, “one big party. And it was all about sex.”
He drank, frequented gay bars and played hard, as did most of
the young men he knew, and he was, he admits, “completely politically apathetic.”
In 1980, while he was working at Disneyland, a 19-year-old named Andrew Exler
was kicked out of the park for dancing with another man. Exler sued and won,
but Duran barely registered the event. “I knew about it, vaguely,”
he says. But it wasn’t until many years later that he and Exler met (they’re
Back then, Duran had his sights set on a corporate career. He
got his B.S. in business administration from Cal State Long Beach and enrolled
in law school at Western State University in Orange County, hoping to get a
piece of corporate America’s bounty during the Reagan years. It was in his last
year of law school, in 1985, that one of his best friends, Scott Fleener of
Ontario, California, died of “HIV disease,” as Duran calls it. Fleener’s
death came suddenly. “I had seen him a few weeks before, and he looked
fine,” Duran remembers. “Then I went on vacation, and when I came
back, there were four messages on the answering machine, the first few saying,
‘Scott’s sick, call right away,’ and the last from his closest friend telling
me he was gone.
“Scott was the first person I knew who died,” Duran
says. “I was robbed of the chance to say goodbye, and at his memorial service
I had one of those ‘As God Is My Witness’ moments when I vowed to find a cure
for this disease.” At the time he thought that wouldn’t be so hard. “I
thought, ‘People just need to be aware that there’s a problem.’” When Lyndon
LaRouche came through the next year and I got Proposition 64 on the California
ballot, threatening to quarantine HIV-positive people in internment camps, Duran
took action. “I showed up at the office of Pat Callahan,” then the
co-chair of the Orange County–based gay activist group ECCO, “and said,
‘Put me to work.’ And that was the start of my political career.”
Within the next six years, Duran would lose 107 more friends
to HIV-related illnesses. He would also watch as people with HIV got fired from
their jobs as schoolteachers or locked out of health clubs, and it enraged him.
“It completely overturned my sense of the way the world should work,”
he says. “Everything changed.”
In 1988, he became a clerk at a law office run by two activist
lesbians and met Joel Loquvam. A year later, the two men started their own law
firm in Anaheim focusing on gay civil rights and discrimination against people
It’s hard now to recall how hysterically homophobic Orange County
was back then, but in a political climate determined by Congressmen Robert Dornan
of Santa Ana and William Dannemeyer of Fullerton — who proposed legislation
to publicize the names of everyone testing positive for HIV — discrimination
cases brought Loquvam and Duran a steady business.
“We did a lot of employment-related discrimination claims,
both sexual orientation–related and HIV-related,” remembers Loquvam. “But
we also did quite a bit of estate planning and probate, because, unfortunately,
a lot of people were dying.” (Loquvam continues independently in estate
Cut off from political power as the Christian right floated to
the surface in government, gay and lesbian activism grew more militant, even
in Orange County. As Orange County’s newsmaking Traditional Values Coalition
founder Louis Sheldon observed at the time, “The homosexuals are going
for broke these days. The community has got to decide whether it’s going to
accept this repugnant behavior as normal.”
Duran could not have picked a better place to whet his activist
mettle. “I was forged in fire,” he says.
As a vocal and enterprising gay man visible in Orange County civic
life, Duran was both admired and controversial. In 1989, the city of Santa Ana
approved a plan hatched by a number of gay activists, including the AIDS Coalition
To Unleash Power, or ACT-UP (which Duran represented), to hold a gay-pride festival
in the city’s Centennial Park, an event that would include speakers, a parade
and some live entertainment. When Sheldon heard news of the impending event,
he mobilized hard and fast against it, organizing 700 protesters almost overnight
to demand the event be canceled.
It was not a position with which the Santa Ana City Council and
then-Mayor Dan Young were unsympathetic. Young told the Orange County Register
that he expected the event to be “very disruptive” and looked hard
for legal options to ban it. But as the organizers’ lawyer, Duran prevailed
— by invoking the Constitution. After Duran delivered a defense citing the First
Amendment’s right to freedom of assembly, Santa Ana City Attorney Ed Cooper
ultimately concluded that if the city revoked the gay festival’s permit, it
would have to deny the same right to every other group that applied, or the
lawsuits would pile in. “The group in this present case has a constitutional
right of free speech and assembly, which the [city parks] director is bound
to observe,” he told the city council.
“Traditional American values have won out — the values of
freedom of speech and the First Amendment,” the Orange County Register
quoted “gay civil rights attorney” Duran as saying at the time.
“The city attorney has done the right thing in upholding the Constitution.
This says that pluralism and diversity in Orange County exists and will continue
to exist because of constitutional precedents.”
It was important to Duran back then that he was not an activist
of the ACT-UP variety; he worked hard to refine his message that gays were “just
regular Orange County folks like everyone else,” as he told the Register.
Shortly after the gay-pride festival happened, a reporter at the Register
wrote a story about Duran’s friendship with militant gay activist Jeff LeTourneau,
depicting Duran as a friendly, moderating influence to LeTourneau’s rabble-rousing,
confrontational tactics. The article described the then 30-year-old lawyer as
“given to pinstripe suits, paisley ties and power lunches with politicians
. . . a diplomat who works behind the scenes, lobbying state legislators to
support gay rights and AIDS research.” At a debate in Santa Ana’s City
Hall, Duran famously extended his hand to Sheldon, expecting a civil handshake.
Sheldon turned his back.
Duran has given up the suits and ties for a wardrobe of mostly
fitted crewnecks and 501 jeans, but he remains, as the Santa Ana council members
observed at the time, “unfailingly polite.” He smiles constantly —
even when he’s talking about Senator Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum. But
Duran does not hesitate to remind you, several times in the conversation, that
beneath the pleasant exterior he still seethes. “I keep the list of friends
I’ve lost to AIDS on the refrigerator door to remind me what I’m angry about,”
he says, “although it’s not as if I ever forget.”
In 1991, after Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a bill that
would have outlawed job discrimination in California on the basis of sexual
orientation, Duran and Loquvam moved their practice from their Anaheim bungalow
to a prestigious West Hollywood office building, in part because Duran wanted
to pursue politics.
“The writing was on the wall,” says Loquvam. “John
had aspirations, and Orange County was not going to elect a gay man to public
office anytime soon.”
In 1992, Duran ran in the Democratic primaries against Burt Margolin
for the Assembly seat in the 42nd District, the largely white, liberal district
that includes not only West Hollywood — where estimates suggest one-third of
the residents are gay — but Beverly Hills and the western San Fernando Valley.
“I will be an aggressive and effective advocate for our rightful
share of political power,” he wrote in a fund-raising letter to the gay
community. “We have settled for too little for too long.”
Margolin won that primary, but Duran polled at a respectable 35
percent of the vote, and in 1994, he ran again in a field that included current
Assemblyman Paul Koretz and Abbe Land, now his fellow City Council
member. This time he did worse, coming in fifth out of seven. But on the campaign
trail, he made some friends.
“We were always at the same events, always at the same dinners,”
says Land, who has served on the West Hollywood City Council off and on since
1986. “We all wanted to win, and all wanted to do better, but not at each
other’s expense. And we had a lot of time to talk about what we had in common.”
Duran says his emphasis shifted away from gay civil rights because
his firm had lost so many clients to AIDS. “I said when we reach 1,000,
I’m going to do something else, and I did.”
But it also might have been because in the mid- to late-1990s,
gay rights lost its urgency. In 1992, Wilson signed into a law an anti-discrimination
bill much like the one he vetoed the year before. Drugs loomed on the horizon
that would prolong, if not save, the lives of people living with HIV, and by
the end of the decade, Governor Gray Davis would sign into law legislation banning
sexual orientation–based discrimination in housing, employment and public schools.
By the end of the 1990s, Duran had found other underdogs to defend, including
people accused of sex crimes and medical-marijuana users: In 1998, he successfully
defended the Cannabis Buyer’s Club, the first case in the state after Proposition
215 legalized marijuana for medical use. In 1999, he and Loquvam dissolved their
practice. Two years later, he won a seat on the City Council with a little more
than 2,000 votes.
As the Latino mayor of a city that’s 92 percent white, Duran is
one of only four openly HIV-positive officials in the U.S., a factor, along
with his eight years of sobriety, he views as a political asset.
“It gives me the ability to talk firsthand about health-care
issues,” he says. Duran runs again for re-election to the City Council
alongside Jeffrey Prang this March, but no longer on a platform of gay rights.
In West Hollywood, Prang says, “Everyone just assumes you’re for gay rights.
If you polled most of our residents on what mattered to them when they vote
for local candidates, they’d say they’re concerned about having a place to park,
or whether, when they call the police, somebody shows up fast.”
Instead of promising to get gays their fair share of access in
his fund-raising pitches, Duran shows up at “meet-the-mayor” parties
where the conversation turns on issues like affordable housing and population
diversity in the city of 37,000, a former sanctuary for the ostracized that
is fast becoming a mecca for the sophisticated. It’s a “small cosmopolitan
urban bohemia,” as Duran puts it, “with a really big purse.”
At one fund-raiser last month, in a spacious white-tiled photographer’s
studio in a historical building on Fountain Avenue, guests quickly dispensed
with post-election rage in favor of long discussions about rent control and
the problem of renovating and maintaining rental units in the city.
“Our housing is out of reach for most working Americans,”
Duran had told me earlier. “The savagery of the market is putting a lot
of pressure on tenants, especially the elderly and the Russian immigrants. All
the economic activity is wonderful, but do we want to end up like Santa Barbara
— rich, white and affluent? I don’t think so. We want to maintain our diversity,
young and old, rich and poor, as our demographics shift. And it can be done.
It just really puts pressure on the people in council to set aside and enforce
rent stabilization and sustainable development. We never want to be a city of
Starbucks and Wal-Marts.”
Not everyone on the council is so optimistic. “In my opinion,”
says Prang, “there are factors beyond the city’s control that will continue
to change the demographics of the city. I think the public in general still
supports those core values, but there are now competing values with people who
own property. Sometimes when push comes to shove and their individual property
is involved, it’s much less clear.”
But Duran stands firm. “West Hollywood is a great success
story,” he says, “and the residents who’ve been here for a while do
support our values. The question is, can we explain West Hollywood to newcomers?
“I believe we can,” Duran continues. “One of the
things we do is bring our local businesses into the process of setting the agenda
and make them partners in the community and make sure everyone feels included.”
Although the Russian and gay communities have “had some conflict over the
years,” Duran supports creating a Russian business district in the city.
“We have a few gay Russians involved with the council to
help us bridge the gap between the Russian and gay communities,” he says,
as well as people from Georgia and Ukraine who felt disenfranchised under the
control of the Soviet Union.
“They can identify with oppression,” Duran says confidently.
Both Duran and Prang are staying out of state races for the time
being, to clear the field for Land, who will run for the 42nd District seat
being vacated by termed-out Paul Koretz. But Duran still dreams of higher political
“I would love one day to go fight the right in Washington,”
And after the recent election, Washington may need him. Then again,
so may some ordinary citizen clients: Loquvam says that since November 3 he’s
all of a sudden fielding phone calls from gays and lesbians experiencing discrimination
in the workplace.
“I’m getting four a week,” he says. “And that hasn’t
happened in years.”
Duran, however, remains sanguine about the future, and any gay-rights
battles that may emerge in it. “It’s not the first time the Deep South
has coalesced around an issue,” he says. “I’m convinced we’ll eventually
prevail, as all civil rights movements have. Gay rights have only been around
for 30 years or so. This year is just a blip.”